April 3, 2006

Shiite Alliance Splits

Hatched by Sachi

A couple of weeks ago, Dafydd reported in Al-Jaafari - Teetering On the Edge? that there was a strong indication that the Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), may split over the controversial nomination of Muqtada Sadr's ally, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, as prime minister.

Jaafari is currently the prime minister by appointment, but still under the old Transitional government; he was not elected under the recently approved Iraq constitution. Sadr is, of course, the renegade "cleric" whose Mahdi Militia has gone to war against the Coalition many times in the past three years.

SCIRI (Abdul-Mahdi's party within the UIA) may be about to split from [the Islamic Dawa Party] (al-Jaafari's party) on the question of the prime minister nominee, joining with Kurds and Sunni to form a majority coalition that can nominate Abdul-Mahdi and elect him to the post. This would break the logjam, were it to occur, and the government could finally form.
It seems we were right about that. On Sunday afternoon, as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Minister Jack Straw paid a surprise visit to Iraq, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) announced the split:

It was not clear whether the joint visit by Ms. Rice and Mr. Straw, the top emissaries of the two countries that led the invasion of Iraq three years ago, played a direct role in the fracturing of the Shiite bloc and whether that split would lead to forward movement on forming a new government, which has been stalled for months.

But the developments suggested a new phase in Iraq's convulsions may have started by opening a possibly violent battle for the country's top job between rival Shiite factions, which both have militias backing them up. The incumbent prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, has said he will fight to keep his job, and his principal supporter is Moktada al-Sadr, a rebellious Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army militia has resorted to violence many times to enforce his wishes

I do not believe their visits directly influenced the split, since the SCIRI was never happy with the nomination; Jaafari won by a single vote within the UIA party caucus, amid many violent threats by Sadr against anyone who opposed his candidate. But pressure from both the American and British governments might have been the last straw for Shia who are fed up with a nominee who has no interest even in unifying the Shia, let alone all Iraqis.

Of course the splintering will cause problems for the Shia, especially the religious ones. The UIA does not have a majority of seats in the National Assembly (it has 128 out of 275 seats), but it's the biggest kid on the block. If it fractures, with its largest piece (the SCIRI) pulling out, it will become just another minority party... particularly so if the SCIRI takes the closely allied Badr Organization (Badr Brigade) with it when it leaves.

The SCIRI will have to form an alliance with Kurdish, Sunni, and secular Shiite parties -- such as the Iraqi National Accord, led by Dr. Iyad Allawi, another former prime minister (this time of the Iraq Interim Government, which predated the Transitional National Assembly government).

The eruption among the Shiites could also completely redraw Iraq's political coalitions, if some Shiite politicians leave the bloc amid the feuding to side with other groups in the 275-member Parliament. That would weaken the religious Shiites.

The most likely candidate arising out of such a realliance would be current Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, the man Jaafari barely beat in the UIA caucus. Both Kurds and Sunni have signalled acceptance of Abdul Mahdi. If one or both of those parties could be persuaded to withdraw their current nominees and send Abdul Mahdi's name up, then the anti-Sadrites within the UIA could vote for him without having to split the party itself. If not, then the SCIRI will have to break away and nominate him.

Sadr’s faction will not stand by quietly as their power base erodes further. They will step up the violence and may even try to assassinate candidates opposing Jaafari, such as the SCIRI's Abdul Mahdi or the Iraqi Democratic Movement's Kassim Daoud (the IDM is another party within the UIA bloc).

Sadr's only power is his ability to kill and threaten to kill; he has considerably less of an ideological following today than he did while he was carrying out his (briefly) successful "rebellion" against the occupying forces in Najaf. Take away that ability, and Sadr will fall.

One possibility is that Coalition and Iraqi forces could keep Sadr's Mahdi Militia busy by raiding even more of the Mahdi thugs’ offices. Once an Iraq unity government is established with a more patriotic and moderate prime minister -- one not beholden to Sadr, as Jaafari is -- Sadr might see the writing on the wall (a very appropriate metaphor, since ancient Babylon was where Iraq is now) and flee to his patron, Iran.

If Sadr splits, I am convinced his Mahdi Militia will disband. Some of the members will surely follow Sadr into exile; others will slide seamlessly into other militias (such as the Badr Brigade, now called the Badr Organization), so they can continue fighting against the Sunni terrorists led by the Jordanian Musab Zarqawi. The rest will probably just fade into the background and try to pretend they were never there.

But that constitutes the best-case scenario, which means the odds are against it: it's the Middle East, after all. Let's keep our fingers crossed that at the very least, Jaafari is forced out as prime minister, and someone else takes over who can actually rally all the democratic factions behind him.

Hatched by Sachi on this day, April 3, 2006, at the time of 2:43 PM

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